Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Over the past month, Occupy Oakland's General Assembly has debated five separate proposals addressing nonviolence, diversity of tactics, and destruction of property, four leaning towards nonviolence and one toward “diversity of tactics.” Not one has passed, despite attempts to address the issue from various viewpoints.

Yellow are nonviolence-affirming proposals, purple is the diversity of tactics-affirming proposal

The Proposals
The first and most popular proposal (or, more accurately, least unpopular one) was the so-called “Friendly Neighbor Policy” proposal, floated on October 23rd. It was also the most benign, requesting “zero tolerance for racism, sexism, harassment, or violence” within the encampment, and for occupants to “be respectful of all people and visitors.” However, speakers against the proposal disavowed policing each other within the movement, promoting individual autonomy instead, and one occupier asserted that “in revolutionary times, violence is needed.” In the end, only 63% of the assembly approved of the proposal, falling far short of the 90% needed to pass under modified consensus.

Both the “Diversity of Tactics” and “Action Agreements” proposals (11/9 and 11/20) included language to acknowledge diversity within the movement, but ultimately sought to discourage violence and destruction and disown from the movement those who took part in such acts.

We urge individuals employing Black Bloc tactics to use self-restraint and forethought. We urge Black Bloc members not to destroy local businesses. We encourage all individuals who are engaged in non-violence to continue to do so.” – Diversity of Tactics Proposal 11/09/11

We agree not to physically assault people except in the case of self defense or bodily defense of others, we agree not to engage in destruction of property... We recognize that individuals who take part in other actions are acting autonomously and not in the name of our movement.” – Action Agreements Proposal 11/20/11

Playing Oakland schools musical chairs, 11/19
In both cases, speakers against the proposal far outweighed those for it, and the language of the proposals was systematically shot through with holes. Some in favor argued that without a promise to maintain a safe and nonviolent movement, “average” people may be scared away, and that many of the people the Occupy movement purports to represent cannot afford to be arrested. However, most of the rhetoric focused on the vague language of the proposals, the inability to enforce such edicts, and the inefficacy of choosing a fixed set of tactics without a parallel set of clear goals.

A “Statement of Intent” proposal drafted in the wake of the murder nearby the occupation was withdrawn after harsh criticism on Nov. 21. It stated that “those who indulge in violence and coercion are cutting themselves off from everyone else... we [of Occupy Oakland] bring peace, we serve, and protect. We choose our actions and we are aware that our actions have consequences.” Though the sponsor stated that the intention behind the proposal was to affirm the wholeness and balance of the movement, its very language indicated hostility towards those who decide to “indulge in violence and coercion.” Eventually, the proposal was withdrawn and set aside.

Creating Division
Education cuts protesters, 11/19
In each of the four proposals, speakers noted that restraining or disowning those using violent tactics could be seen as itself violent, and certainly devisive. When I was in attendence on November 9th, it was clear that the very proposal seeking to unite the movement behind nonviolence had in fact divided the assembly. Though I am nonviolent myself, I spoke against the proposal because it seemed only to serve to oust some people from what is supposed to be a populist movement.

Interestingly, a fifth proposal seeking to affirm diversity in tactics rather than solely nonviolence met with nearly as much resistance as proposals for peace. The “St. Paul's Principles” proposal which touted “respect for diversity of tactics” and “no denouncement of fellow activists or events to the media,” at first seemed a solution to the divisiveness of the other proposals. Diversity is great right? Isn't that what embracing the 99% means?

However, as one speaker against the proposal put it, given that some people are staunch pacifists and personally denounce violence and destruction “would 'diversity of tactics' leave out a diversity of people?” Furthermore, some likened the prohibition on talking to the media to a “code of silence” that would be ultimately destructive to the transparency and accessibility of the movement.

At the Education March to Lakeview School, 11/19
So What?
Personally, I believe in using peaceful means to achieve results, and that hostility and rage will only perpetuate fear and hate. However, I feel that directing our negative energies toward each other will splinter the movement and obstruct our visions for the future.

So if we can't decide to be nonviolent, but we also can't decide to not be nonviolent, and we know that “a house divided doesn't stand,” what are we left with?

This issue gets to the very heart of the Occupy movement's stubborn refusal to define itself or present demands. The 99% means very nearly everyone. We can't expect that nearly everyone in a room, let alone a movement, country or planet, is going to have the same goals, concerns, or means of affecting social change.

"Capitalism is a Pyramid Scheme," 11/19
I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that condemning individuals and their actions, however personally offensive, is pretty pointless and a waste of precious GA time. If indeed many of those wishing to employ “Black Bloc” tactics are self-proclaimed anarchists, then passing a resolution at the GA will do nothing to curtail this activity. Most anarchists believe in grassroots organization rather than top-down structure, and in individual autonomy. When the General Assembly becomes a vehicle for imposing restrictions on individual behavior, it has already become another establishment that goes against the values espoused by the powerful anarchist subculture of the movement.

Low approval (and high abstention) on the above proposals, at a GA where most action and solidarity proposals are passed indicate that plenty of people also feel uncomfortable defining the actions of others. Abstineo, Latin for “abstain,” comes from abs- “away from” and teneo “hold, restrain.” In the context of voting, then, to abstain is literally to shy away from restraining the group, the process, or the individual. This indicates that perhaps as a movement, the trend is to abstain from controlling the autonomy of our fellow protesters, and instead affirm only those actions which allow for individual choice and expression.

Rather than limiting the umbrella of “Occupy,” we need to live under an ever-expanding tent that can grow to accommodate everyone in the 99%. This may mean standing with people of other viewpoints, but with whom we are united for a related cause. We should neither attempt to condemn nor condone any one viewpoint or tactic. Instead, we can engage in dialogue and education with each other to gain deeper understanding, and use our diversity to form multiple collaborative and interlinked communities.  

"No one can evict an idea whose time has come!" 11/19
The beauty of the Occupy movement is that anyone can participate, and anyone has the agency to create something where they see a void. If sitting in an intersection, or boycotting a store, or moving money out of banks is what you think should happen, organize it and you'll probably get your local GA's blessing. It seems that the only thing Occupy implicitly agrees to disavow is dissent, choosing instead to uphold individual initiative. 

Friday, November 11, 2011


Stockholm syndrome – n. (psychiatry)

“An emotional attachment to a captor formed by a hostage as a result of continuous stress, dependence, and a need to cooperate for survival.”

A shockingly large number of Americans are suffering from a kind of nationalist Stockholm syndrome. Unsurprisingly, they don't even know it. With income disparity at an all-time high in the United States, why are so few people reluctant to admit their discontentment, frustration, and fear, even to themselves? The convoluted answer lies in our history as a country, the philosophical underpinnings of our economic system, and the inherent problems of the American Dream. Luckily, people are starting to wake up.

When I think about the Occupy movement in the context of its place in the American psyche, the image that comes to mind is that of a very large locomotive laboriously starting to move. Right now, we're at the slow beginning stages where it doesn't even seem possible that we, the weighty 99%, could be careening down the track of social change in the very near future. But as more and more people realize their discontentment with the status quo, and with their health and safety being traded for profit, moving the large machine becomes easier.

There are plenty of Americans who have been on the train for years already. Like one African-American man said at the Occupy Oakland General Assembly on Monday night, “A lot of people have been realizing in the last 5 years that the system is fucked. That it keeps them down. And it's great that they realize that, but my people have known that for the last 500 years.” Some members of minorities, immigrants, union workers, and politically minded people have been speaking up for themselves and their communities for years. However, many more are willfully ignorant, afraid of losing what they still do have, or just don't want to rock the boat.

One major problem lies in the foundation of the American Dream, which pervades every corner of our society through schools, workplaces, government programs, and popular media. This philosophy tells us that if we work hard and apply ourselves to our careers, we will be prosperous, and deserving and entitled to that prosperity. This notion negates the powerful effects of institutional oppression, luck, and blatant discrimination that are at work against many people in the country.

The flipside of the American dream is that it implicates those who are not prosperous in their own undoing: if someone is poor, jobless, homeless, ignorant, unpopular, or otherwise unsuccessful, then it is solely their fault. Had they merely tried harder or applied themselves, according to this logic, they would be successful as well. A paradigm like this allows those who have achieved success to imagine themselves as more entitled to respect, privilege, and further success than those who have failed. And who wants to be a failure? So plenty of people are reluctant and too proud to admit even to themselves that they are struggling, because they believe it to be their own fault and something to be ashamed of.

Furthermore, despite our founding fathers' intentions to the contrary, we live in a country in which it is considered unpatriotic to be dissatisfied with the establishment and the government, let alone speak against them. Clearly, there are plenty of people who do speak up. But not enough.

So how do we spread the call to social change?

It has to start with compassion, education, and outreach to those who are not yet on board. We have to open up safe and welcoming spaces that have room enough for everyone. We have to provide the information that will awaken Americans to acknowledging the injustice and inequality that they already know exists. (More on this in the next post)

In Latin, 'evigilor' means 'to awaken,' but it also means 'to be alert' and 'to be watchful.' We are coming into a new period of American history in which citizens need to awaken to the call of their neighbors, and learn to watch out not only for themselves, but for each other. Our linguistically related concept of holding 'vigil' means to occupy a space together, for a common purpose, and often throughout the night. In as much as the hundreds of Occupy encampments across the globe are evocative of perpetual vigil for our errant economic milieu, they are also calls to every passerby to allow themselves to awaken.

The alarm is going off. Time to wake up.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

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Happy Blogging!


"The system has got to die, we're gonna hella, hella occupy!"

Three days since the Oakland General Strike on November 2nd, and impassioned chants are still ringing in my ears. It was Occupy Wall Street, raised to the power of Oakland. By the end of the day, we were a thronging mass, four lanes wide and four miles long, stretching from city center to the western tip of the Port of Oakland.

As my friend Elana and I emerged from the 12th Street BART station, the beating drums, shouts, and honking horns made it clear where the protest was. Just as we arrived, the crowd was beginning to take over the intersection at 14th and Broadway, forcing city buses and tractor trailers to make impossible U-turns. In our first act of claiming power for the day, Elana and I stood smack dab in the middle of the intersection, staking Occupy's claim to a space that would later be used as a main gathering place for the strike.

I felt strange at first -- wasn't it illegal to obstruct traffic? Were we supposed to have a permit for this? And then I realized that most of my experience standing in a street full of people usually bustling with vehicles has been at parades. Street fairs, block parties -- planned events with official organizers and sponsors and money and committees. This was different. Though the General Strike was planned, collectively we were exercising our right to assemble. I asked a man near me about these qualms, and he said "permit?? Since when do we need a permit to exercise our constitutional rights?" Well that cleared that up. (Not really, but I think I need to do more reading on the legal restrictions on 1st amendment rights before I can debate it at all.)

It took a while for things to get started -- first the MC was late, then as we waited for Angela Davis to arrive, the organizers ran out of people to speak so it became an open mic -- but once they did, the excitement in the crowd was palpable. We heard from union organizers, teachers, rappers, students, poets, average joes, community organizers, faith leaders, and everyone in between. By 11am, we were ready to march.

Interesting to note here that "gradior" in latin means "to march," and from the passive perfect conjugations of gradior (gress--) comes our English word "progressive." (Literally, forward-marching-ness) According to the OED, progressive means "Favoring social reform -- Favoring change or innovation." Ergo, marching, holding marches, is intrinsically and essentially part of a progressive movement. Without masses of people visible in their support, we cannot expect social change.

The first march was just a mini-march -- basically around a few blocks, with stops at the state building and CitiBank. I found a Cal Alum making free quesadillas on a portable stove set up on the sidewalk, and enjoyed the looks on folks' faces as they realized he wasn't asking for money. After running into several more friends, standing in line for an hour for the iconic "Hella Occupy Oakland" poster, and making another sign of my own, Al and I headed over to the amphitheater to watch some of the live program.

We heard youthspeaks poets, touching on issues of identity, power, wealth and dignity. “If immigrant rights are human, when will this land allow our humanity?” asks Erica, a passionate and eloquent young poet. I have always been so impressed with youthspeaks and the ability that the students have to wield their voices. Destiny Arts also performed, and I'll try to upload the video I took of their dance/social theater.

Finally, the crowd had swelled to critical mass and we gathered on 14th street to march to the port. We embarked in waves, with the first couple hundred boarding six busses to begin the process of shutting down the Port of Oakland, the 5th largest port in the country and arguably the economic hub of the Bay Area. Earlier that morning, we'd heard reports that members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) had already walked out or refused to work, both in recognition of the Oakland General Strike, and in solidarity with their union brothers in Longview, WA, who have been on strike for more than a month. However, the Port of Oakland said only about 40 workers had walked out in the morning.

By 5pm, though, at least five thousand occupiers had descended on the port, snaking all the way over the railroad overpass and through the port. Looking back at the map, it seems that at its height the march was at least four miles long and four lanes wide full of people from city center to the berths at the port. Most of the estimates quoted on the media have been at about 7,000 people, but I'm sure it was closer to twice that. Curiously, although there were at least three helicopters overhead, no media outlets have released footage of more than three blocks or so of the marches.

Though we started towards the front of the march, Al and I opted to stick by the marching band that was traveling a little slower than the rest. By the time we were almost down to the port, a sea of people stretched in front of us and rose up the overpass, and I thought that surely we were at the tail end. Then I looked behind me to discover an unending, jubilant, and massive group of people still pouring out of city center. It gave me chills to know that I was a part of something so big.

After Al left for dinner with her sister, I was on my own for the time being and entered the port with the wave of people. I noticed that folks had started clambering atop the trucks frozen in the crowd for a better view, and I followed suit. From my higher perch, I could see the bigger picture, both literally and physically. What had seemed an unending mass of life and passion was actually just a thin strip amidst the entirely built landscape of the Port. (My later search for a spot to pee confirmed that the Port of Oakland had the least greenery of anywhere I've been.) I wondered if there had ever been so many people at the port in history, and how small a percentage of the people chanting “Whose Port? Our Port!” had even ever set foot there before.

I had, when I came with my Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program class almost exactly two years ago. We learned about operations at the Port of Oakland and its importance to California's economy, and got a special tour aboard a Crowley tugboat. But for my entire life growing up in the Bay Area prior, I hadn't ever even considered the Port. It was just a part of the landscape, the George Lucas-inspiring cargo cranes rising against the silhouette of San Francisco like trees or bridges or telephone poles. Little did I know that about 95% of US imports pass through our port system (now that I look at it, “import” means quite literally “into port”), and that the ILWU is one of the most active labor unions around.

What made the Port especially enticing for Occupy Oakland organizers to target, though, is a special clause in ILWU contracts that allow members to refuse to cross community picket lines in solidarity. I recently learned that this is not the case for most unions – i.e., unless the membership of your own union has voted to strike, you can't refuse to work on union grounds. However, the ILWU allows this, which is how I ended up in a picket line in front of terminal gate 60-63. The idea was that once workers arrived for their 7pm shift, there would be a picket line preventing them from entering, and they would have to turn around. Around 6:50 we got the word that workers were being sent home WITH pay, and the long line of cars that snaked in was allowed out to return to their families.

Elana came back after work, and we walked around the port for a while, such such a vast array of people it almost made my head spin. There was Patrick, the aspiring farmer I met on top of another stationary truck, and Maria, the community college student from Mexico hoping to be able to afford to transfer to a 4-year university. We ran into several Smith alums, family friends, former students of mine, and teachers from Elana's school. There were babies, grandmas, and everyone in between. Those who weren't unemployed or couldn't take the day off showed up in droves after work, wearing business suits, scrubs, hairnets, carpenters' belts, overalls, firemens' uniforms, and t-shirts to countless unions. Picnicking hipsters ate cheese and crackers in the middle of an intersection, while through the cacophony of megaphones we could pick out chants, slogans, people looking for their friends, and somewhat frazzled organizers attempting to direct bodies toward the more thinly-picketed gates.

As we waited for a BART train nearly twelve hours after arriving that morning, the conversations continued, as we proudly told curious passers-by that the atmosphere had been jubilant, passionate, and entirely peaceful. The station itself had more cops than we'd seen all day, and it seemed like the standard eyes-down silence that generally prevails on public transportation had been broken. Later that night, a small subset of occupiers clashed again with police, but until about midnight, everyone congratulated themselves on a peaceful message well-sent: We are the 99%, and we refuse to be silent any longer.